Sonny Gray on Evolving as a Pitcher

Sonny Gray
Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

Sonny Gray has been one of baseball’s best pitchers so far this season. Over five starts, the Minnesota Twins right-hander has fanned 34 batters and allowed just 20 hits and two runs in 29 innings. His ERA is a Lilliputian 0.62.

Gray is no flash in the pan. Now 33 years old and in his 11th big league season, the Vanderbilt University product is a two-time All-Star with a 3.50 ERA and a 3.54 FIP over 252 career appearances, all but nine as a starter. Originally with the Oakland Athletics, he subsequently pitched for the New York Yankees and the Cincinnati Reds before coming to the Twins Cities prior to last season.

How as the veteran hurler evolved over the years? Gray addressed that question when the Twins visited Fenway Park last week.


David Laurila: How have you evolved as a pitcher? Outside of being older, are you basically the same guy that broke into the big leagues in 2013?

Sonny Gray: “I would say no. As far as pitch types, I still throw the same curveball, that hasn’t changed, but everything else has kind of evolved and adapted.

“For the first four to five years, it was kind of, ‘Go out there and do it.’ At the time, 95–96 [mph] was a lot of velo, and you could just beat guys with that. If you had any type of breaking pitch, all the better. So for those first four to five years, it was kind of just that. I threw a two-seam and a four-seam and then a curveball.

“Everyone would say that one of the reasons my fastball was so hard to hit is that they didn’t know which way it was going to go. My four-seam tended to cut a little bit, and the two-seam would go the other way. Then I got traded to New York [in July 2017]. That was the first time I tried to change a little bit. I’d always lived down and away, bottom of the zone, and now I was hearing, ‘Hey, throw your four-seam at the top of the zone.’ That was a little foreign to me. I tried it, I did some things, and didn’t have immediate success with it.

“That’s the first time I was adapting. It was the first era of the spin stuff. It was new to everyone back then, and we were figuring out that spinning four-seams were good [pitches]. I don’t think everyone had it together that everyone’s four-seam is different. At the time, it was just ‘Spinning four-seams at the top are great.” My four-seam tends to cut a little bit, it doesn’t have that [ride], so while I had some success, overall it didn’t go well.”

Laurila: What happened from there?

Gray: “I went to Cincinnati [in January 2019] and readapted. There it was ‘OK, there are different locations where you’re going to throw your pitches. This is where your pitches play the best and this is what you should do.’ It was ‘The four-seam up and away to righties isn’t necessarily a great pitch for you. The simple fact is, you’re not getting above the barrel.’ My four-seam is down and away to righties. My two-seam is at the hands. When I throw my four-seam up and out over the plate, it doesn’t have the 18 to 20 inches of carry. It has a little bit of ‘spinny.’ My hand is a little bit on the side, and it tends to cut and kind of flatten out. That’s not going to get it above a barrel, it’s going to get on a barrel.”

Laurila: You learned this with the Reds.

Gray: “Yes, Cincinnati is really where I started learning. And they could really explain why. They basically taught me how to read a TrackMan and how to read a Rapsodo — what the numbers mean, the why this, and why that.”

Laurila: I’m surprised you didn’t get that in New York.

Gray: “They didn’t know at the time. Ask anybody who was there in ’17 and ’18. No one knew. The Astros were maybe the only team that really understood it. Everyone knew spin was good, but they didn’t realize that efficiency mattered on a fastball. The carry number… the carry matters on a fastball. Vertical approach angle matters on a fastball. Horizontal and vertical movement matters. At the time, it was just ‘If you can spin the ball fast, you want to throw it at the top, and then you want to throw the curveball.’ It was ‘Spin is what plays’ — they just didn’t know why. I was asking questions, and no-one knew super-why yet. This was across the league. Again, the exception was the Astros, and maybe the Dodgers, but you could tell that teams were getting very interested in it. They were trying to learn.”

Laurila: I believe Kyle Boddy went to Cincinnati around the same time you did?

Gray: “No. He went there after that. I really learned from Caleb Cotham.”

Laurila: Cotham was also at Driveline.

Gray: “Yes. All those original Driveline guys went out and had a better understanding of, yes, spin, but also the efficiency and axis of the spin.

“When I got to Cincinnati… I was so far removed from Oakland. At this point, lefties had changed. Sinkers down and away wasn’t a pitch to lefties anymore. When I came up, two-seams down and away or even middle-down had lefties rolling it over and hitting ground balls to first. If you look at… I think it was in ’15 that I had 35 or 36 putouts at first base, which led the league. But hitters started to change. They started to get power the other way on the pitch low and away. They were driving it to center and to left-center as opposed to trying to turn on stuff. Four-seams up were starting to play, because hitters are doing this, their barrels are dropping, so now you can get above it. But I still wasn’t able to get above it, away. That’s because what I had was cut-ride; it wasn’t carry. Again, I started learning all of this in Cincinnati. They made it incredibly simple for me to understand what my pitches do and where to throw them.”

Laurila: Now you’re in Minnesota.

Gray: “Yes, and another thing with New York is that it was also ‘Don’t throw any two-seams, we’re going to just throw four-seams, curveballs, and sliders.’ In my head, I was like, ‘I’ve thrown two-seams literally my whole life.’ That and my curveball. What they wanted just didn’t play for me, either mentally or in terms of outcomes.

“So I learned in Cincinnati and now I’m here. I’m still adapting, but more than anything I’m a little older and I completely understand myself. I know what the numbers mean and I know how my pitches play to get guys out. I’m throwing a changeup now, too. I’m still focusing on my strengths, but I’m also continually trying to add a little bit here and there. I’m currently throwing six pitches, and they’re all quality pitches, but a lot of it is still having a fastball that moves both ways and a curveball. I know how to set them up. I’ve gotten really good at doing that. That’s kind of how I’ve evolved as a pitcher.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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11 months ago

I always enjoy your interviews, David.